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Spirits and the spikes

September 19, 2012

Thailand’s best beach destination gears up to celebrate its annual vegetarian festival.

As monsoon showers rain down on Thailand’s South causing Phuket’s beach bunnies to scatter for shelter in nearby bars and cafes, a colourful yet spiritual festival is slowly awakening elsewhere on the island. It’s an event that involves fire walking, mind-blowing processions, ear-splitting firecrackers, peaceful chants and vegetarian food.

The annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival returns next month, revealing the enigmatic side to the Pearl of the Andaman and the best place in Thailand to wear a bikini.

This year, Phuket’s famous festival takes place from October 15 to October 23 in the old town, where yellow flags will be flying for nine days.

Celebrated by the Chinese community on the island that’s today best known for its coconut-fringed beaches, stylish and rustic-chic resorts and laid-back attitude, the Vegetarian Festival showcases Phuket’s mystical side.

The Vegetarian Festival has been an annual spiritual event for more than 150 years.

The locals will tell you that the festival was introduced to the town of Kathu by a visiting theatre troupe from China. Struck down by a mysterious epidemic, the entertainers decided they’d fallen ill because they’d failed to pay respect to the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism.

The performers then, the legend goes, erected temples and held a vegetarian festival to ward off any residual bad luck.

Apparently the unorthodox remedy worked, and the annual vegetarian festival has been held ever since. Abstention from sex and alcohol were added in later years for absolute purification.

From October 15, the whole town will fly yellow flags to mark the beginning of the spiritual retreat.

On the eve of the festival, a large pole is raised in each Chinese shrine, and the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism are invited to descend from the heavens and take part in the ceremonies. At midnight, nine lanterns are lit and hung on the poles, meaning that the Vegetarian Festival has begun.

Food stalls also fly yellow flags to indicate they serve only vegetarian food, and devotees dress in white for the entire nine days to show they intend to remain pure.

While vegetarian food is tempting and the Chinese shrines are gaily decorated, most visitors focus on the maa song, the human mediums inhabited by the gods during the festival.

The maa song manifest supernatural powers and perform self-mutilation so they can absorb evil from other individuals and ensure good luck for the entire community.

Each morning begins with processions through the town. At dawn, one can find scores of young men thronging the inner sanctums of the temples, preparing themselves for self-mutilation. At the base of the shrines, they go into a trance, begin speaking in tones and donning colourful aprons with Taoist symbols, look on as doctors make cuts at both sides of their mouths. It’s a painful “pleasure” at least in the eyes of beholders. Prepare yourself for the shocking.

The festivity hits the high point with a procession of people deep in a trance, piercing their tongues and cheeks and other parts of their anatomy with spears, daggers, sharpened branches and anything else that comes to hand. Possessed by the spirits of nine deities, these ascetics apparently feel no pain and show little sign of real injury.

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